Steve and Kate Shaffer never envisioned living on a remote island they’d never heard of. But after marrying in 1999 and selling his computer business, Steve, 48, and Kate, 38, packed their California lives into a 20-foot RV and headed for Maine. Living on the southeastern shore, Kate cooked seasonally at a lighthouse inn on Isle au Haut. When that closed, they combined his business savvy with her cooking passion and launched Black Dinah Chocolatiers, an Internet cafe and truffle-making company. Here’s why Kate says the decision is pure sweetness.
Maine has a lot of islands. What made you choose Isle au Haut as the one island that you would live on? When I took the inn job, I thought it would be just for the summer, but I stayed. I commuted from the mainland, a 45-minute trip by ferry, staying on the island Monday through Friday. It was the perfect job. I was living in a lighthouse and cooking for at most 12 people. On my hours off, I’d hike in Acadia National Park. When Steve found work as a carpenter on the island, we moved.
Where did you move exactly? Basically into a shack because permanent homes are so expensive and hard to come by. We had a garden hose hooked up to the kitchen sink for water; there was no septic. We lived there April to early December for two seasons, and in the winter, we’d rent a different house on the island. During our second winter, we rented one of the houses built by the island’s community development corporation to encourage families to move here. We’re now trying to purchase it.
Was it always your dream to move to such an off-the-radar place? We never had a dream to live on a little island, but Isle au Haut represented a concentration of why we moved to Maine. It was a place that had a very small permanent population, where we could try something new. We had no plan other than wanting to build a business together. Here there’s this kind of Yankee ingenuity. There really wasn’t a crowd of doubters.
That must have helped when you started your business, yes? I wanted to work with chocolate. We kept returning to the same question: How do we get chocolate into people’s hands? We thought that if we could draw people in the door to a cafe with pastries, give them space to enjoy it and get chocolate in their hands, they’d associate it with their time on Isle au Haut and think of it again when giving a gift for a friend, the dog sitter or whatever. It was a crazy idea. We’re fortunate to be within the three-mile reach of the island’s DSL service. That helped make the cafe a community center, since we don’t charge for using the Internet.
And what about the chocolate? The first summer, I would bake in the morning, then put the pastries out on a table at the end of the driveway on the honor system. Only on an island in Maine would that work. Typically, people would leave more money in the jar than the value of what they were taking, and sometimes I would get nice notes. I made doughnuts one day each week because that’s what the fishermen wanted. Fortunately, no dogs got into it, but once someone told me they saw a deer eating my cinnamon rolls.
Besides eating chocolate, what do you do for fun on the island? The Fourth of July is a blast. The whole island is in the parade; no one watches it. Same for the annual talent show in August. Mostly, we’re self-entertaining. We eat with friends. Most people cook out of their gardens, and you have to cook; you can’t go out to eat because there’s no place to go. We choose not to have TV, but we have Netflix. We play volleyball. The school also brings together the community in winter for potlucks and recitals, and we host a community-wide Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days before the holiday.
Chocolate makers, garden chefs and talent-show performers — sounds like some fun people live on Isle au Haut. Maine’s year-round island communities are so tenuous, so there’s this urgency to maintain them. At the turn of the 20th century, I’ve heard there were more than 300 and today only 15. I would guess that half of Isle au Haut’s year-rounders are descended from or are related to the island’s original settlers. They are really rooted here, and most are involved in fishing. The rest are ’60s hippies and idealists or summer residents who moved here because they just love it. Each person who arrives on the island is a potential customer for us. I never felt not accepted.
So what challenges do you face? Everything has to get here by boat, and everything has to leave by boat, even the trash. There’s no car ferry, and everything must be ready for the morning mailboat. We can’t sleep in; we have deadlines to meet. If we miss the boat, we don’t have the opportunity to track down the UPS guy. If the car breaks down, we have to be able to fix it or know whose car we can borrow. There’s only one store with limited inventory and hours, so we have to plan way ahead. It all has to be clockwork. You really don’t get a second chance out here.
And what are the benefits? I think the benefit is the story. It’s why people are interested in us and how we live the island life. It’s like the commercial: You can’t put a value on all of it; it’s price- less. Another benefit is that we have the support of the community. Our business is everybody’s creation, not just ours. You get that in a small community, but even more so on an island.
Facts of Life
- Climate: Temperate
- Year-round population of Isle au Haut: about 70
- Main hospital: Blue Hill Memorial Hospital on the mainland
- Price of local beer: $1.80 at the Island Store
- Language: English
- Ease of immigration: Easy
- Ease of buying a home: Difficult. Not much real estate is available.
- House starting price: $950,000 for a five-bedroom, three-bath spread by the water
- Websites: isleauhaut.com, blackdinahchocolatiers.com